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3 Questions to Answer Before Investing in a Learning Program

Carol Anderson

Founder, Anderson Performance Partners

I have a number of books on my shelf about measuring training and learning — some going back to the 1990s. Many are by training gurus like Donald Kirkpatrick and Jack Phillips, who have created and sustained effective models for measuring the cost of training.

Kirkpatrick's four level measurement begins with the learner's reaction to the training (think: smile sheets after a session) and extends to measuring the results obtained through the training. Jack Phillips takes it a step further and prescribes a methodology for measuring the return on investment. As a new Chief Learning Officer (CLO) back in the early 2000s, their publications were my bible, and my team did a good job of documenting substantial return on investment of several of our programs.

But recently, I discovered that there is a missing piece in each of those methodologies — at least, I missed it.

The missing piece? Defining clearly, in writing and with the agreement of all the stakeholders, what the training is going to accomplish.

The True Cost of Training

"Training" is expensive, particularly if it's classroom based. In my first CLO role, we estimated a cost of $250 per student fully loaded — that screams the need to see if the investment yielded return. The cost of technology-based learning is also pricey, with the added complicating factor of "shelf life" of the product. How much are you willing to spend on a virtual product if it will be outdated within a couple years?

To make it even more difficult, "training" is the first thing many leaders jump to when workers are not performing to standard. Performance, though, is rarely improved by training alone — you need the culture of the organization to align with the content you're trying to teach people if you want it to stick, and you need clear expectations.

As I look back on my two CLO roles, I realize that I learned to ask three very important questions before embarking on a learning program.

1) What is the business problem that you need to solve, or the opportunity you need to grab?

Without a compelling business reason to train people, you shouldn't train people. Learning and development is essentially changing behavior, and there needs to be a pretty visible line between the behavior you want to change, and the impact that change will have on the business.

2) Can you backup your hypothesis using data?

Push beyond what might seem obvious; look for data. That very data is what will tell you if the training was a wise investment. Without it, your program is just a "spray and pray."

Business leaders really only care about four things: revenue, income, market share and expenses. Otherwise, it's just plain fluffy. So push clients back to those four metrics. The link is probably there, but it may be hiding.

3) What should the outcome look like when the problem is solved?

And this is where you begin to shift to being a learning organization. You set goals and see if your solution helped meet those goals — chances are it did meet some, and it didn't meet others. That's your learning opportunity. Seek to understand why it worked or didn't work. Treat the "miss" as a learning opportunity for your team.

Plan a candid and open dialogue among stakeholders to agree on the problem and the proposed solution, then launch the solution, and finally evaluate how it worked. This is what a true learning organization does, consistently.

Photo: Twenty20

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